This is how I discovered the rarest of diamonds amidst the privations of T.E. Lawrence’s desert sands and Yuri Zhivago’s Soviet snowdrifts. I found the “Holy Grail” of cinematic rarity, Let Me Count the Ways. It is harder, because, though it was apparently utterly lost, it has become known to me that it is not extinct, it is just unfound; and it seems to me that we need, at the very least, to exert the effort of setting up a radio-telescopic complex to find this cinematic needle in the haystack of our earthly backyard.
Consider David Lean in 1962. The reigning God of the Cinematic World. The director of Lawrence of Arabia, a film of such undeniable excellence that even Hollywood cannot find some way to snub it. The studios give Lean leave to “walk on water” as it were. He is given carte blanche, a nearly open budget, yet again. And great films follow.
We get into the early seventies. Lean has had several triumphs, but nothing like Lawrence. Fickle now become the studios with their largesse. A river of money still runs to David Lean, but it is finite and it is spent. There is Doctor Zhivago, a success by any measure, and yet the river of gold is running dry. And then of course Michael’s Day becomes Ryan’s Daughter, the greatest disaster movie ever made, though not in the normal sense.
Why is this important? Well, after Lawrence, Lean worked on his pet project, Let Me Count The Ways. He eventually employed much of the cast of Zhivago, but the cash had withered – to the extent that there was only one copy struck of Let Me Count the Ways.
In the early 1970s Lean arranged for two gala showings of the film, first in London, then shortly afterwards in Dublin. Well, gala it turned out not to be; the movie was shown at the obscurest hole-in-the-wall in London, but I happened across it there, most fortuitously, with a hundred or so people in the small theater. Fortunately, Lean insisted upon and got a first rate sound system. I then followed the print to Dublin, where the theater was larger, but the audience rowdier. The greatest misfortune, however, was that the projectionist more than shared in the groundling-like rowdiness of the Dublin-suburban audience: he drank, he fell asleep, the projector caught fire, the theater caught fire, and the reputedly unique movie burned.
The feverish notes I made in my journal those two nights follow.
* * *
Portsmouth, 1899. Ian Culpepper (Tom Courtenay) is supervising kite flying boys on the esplanade. There are towering clouds in the sky, the winds are brisk, there are whitecaps on the grey surf, and ships and boats everywhere. In the next scene he enters a waterfront hotel; there is a display of model ships in the lobby, one of which is of a seven-masted frigate. (A small plaque identifies it as the work of Prof. Ian Culpepper, Uxbridge). He then enters a spacious tearoom, generously fenestrated towards the waterfront, and sits down with a Clara Westcott (Geraldine Chaplin). She is enthusiastic about some conic sections she is analyzing on papers which are spread out before her amidst teapot, teacups, biscuits, and teacakes. She tells Ian that she has a great deal of interest in the way that triangles intersect, to which Ian answers that he is still engaged to Cacilie Fuerstenried of Munich but things may change when he goes there to visit in the summer. The exposition is helped along by the entrance of Lord Stride (Dirk Bogarde), a pretentious nobleman who is the uncle and guardian of Miss Westcott. Clara introduces Ian as a Professor of German at a public (very private) boys’ school in Uxbridge. She also tells Lord Stride that Ian is responsible for the wonderful ship models in the lobby, to which Lord Stride answers, “Perhaps, we may call you ‘Mr. Ships.’” Ian is not amused, but I was.
Lord Stride, boor though he is, is justly proud, and just as protective, of Clara. He calls her the Princess of the Parallelograms. It is obvious that she is an amateur mathematician in the mold of Ada Lovelace-Byron who was the helper of Charles Babbage as a precursor of the modern computer. It is also apparent that Lord Stride fancies himself a kind of Lord Byron. Unfortunately it would have been a Byron who outlived any of his genius.
It is a very long movie, but in it there are many settings and many seasons. The soundtrack is by Maurice Jarre at his most luxuriant, and he has an unprecedented three main themes for this film, rather than his usual, just one. There is a lot of period music too: Elgar, Delius, Wagner, Mahler, and all of the Strausses.
The central part of the film is in Central Europe, Munich to be exact. A lot of it takes place around the Odeonsplatz and the Hofgarten, just like in the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland.” Ian is sitting at an outdoor table with Cacilie (pronounced Ka-seal-ia) Fuerstenried (Maria Schell) and her friend Katia Pringsheim (Rita Tushingham). Dear Clara, as beguiling as she was back in England, has completely faded from the consciousness of Ian, who has rededicated himself to Cacilie.
Meanwhile in the Englischer Garten, near the “Pagoda” on the Kleinhesseloher See, Siegfried Wagner (Oskar Werner) is flirting with Thomas Mann (Omar Sharif). Cosima Wagner (Margaret Rutherford), travelling incognito, leads Siegfried away by the table: “It’s back to Bayreuth with you, young man!” Chastened and actually quite relieved, Mann returns to the Hofgarten where he joins Ian, Clara, and Katia, who is his fiancée. He pulls out a big manuscript from his briefcase and begins reading, to the delight of everyone. The leaves are falling and Munich is at its zenith.
It is February, 1900. Clara and Lord Stride have just returned from St. Petersburg where they did a lot of troika riding. She goes up to Uxbridge and is furious to learn that Ian has not broken off his engagement with Clara. Through her uncle she has Ian brought up on charges of espionage. There is a closed hearing before the admiralty, presided over by Lord Hammersmith (Alec Guinness). Clara arranged for Ian’s ship models to be subpoenaed for evidence of naval espionage; at the same time, Clara presents mathematically derived information that a British heir to the throne will be assassinated in 1910 and that war with Austria will be the result. It becomes obvious to all that Clara is deeply disturbed, and Ian is acquitted, but nevertheless loses his job.
Some years later, the daughter of Clara comes to visit the son of Cacilie and Ian in a beautiful mountain and lake setting in the Eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ian is still hurt by the way he was treated in London, but eventually becomes charmed by the girl who has a letter of apology from her mother. There is peace all around. It is spring, 1914, in Sarajevo.
* * *
As I made my escape from the conflagration in the Dublin theater, I opened the glass case outside, by the ticket booth, with the intention of saving the sole poster advertising the movie. To my surprise, I found it was not a poster, but a painting. Not long afterwards, I sat in a Dublin pub, with none other than the great Lion Lean licking his wounds nearby. He confided in a fellow named Robert that there was one other copy of Let Me Count the Ways, but it soon became impossible for me to discern any more over the rudely indifferent chatter of the other patrons. The knowledge that the film has survived is both the lodestone and bane of my existence.